Soft Governance, Hard Consequences: The Ambiguous Status of Unofficial Guidelines

Authors


Taco Brandsen a senior lecturer at the Tilburg School of Politics and Public Administration, Tilburg University, The Netherlands. His research interests include governance, welfare state reform, and the nonprofit sector.E-mail: t.brandsen@uvt.nl.

Marcel Boogers is a senior lecturer at the Tilburg School of Politics and Public Administration, Tilburg University, The Netherlands. His research interests include central-local relations and e-politics. E-mail: m.boogers@uvt.nl.

Pieter Tops is a professor at the Tilburg School of Politics and Public Administration, Tilburg University, The Netherlands. His research interests include local politics and the innovation of city governance. E-mail: p.e.w.m.tops@uvt.nl.

Abstract

Soft governance is an approach to policy implementation in which the central government relies less on hierarchy than on information to steer local organizations. This allows for a combination of formal accountability and professional autonomy that improves the quality of public services in both the short and the long term. Guidelines of an advisory, unofficial status are one tool that central government can use for this purpose. However, an inherent problem with this approach is that even though guidelines have no official legal status, in practice, they can take on the character of formal regulation when local organizations suspect that they cannot choose alternative courses of action, however well reasoned, without being sanctioned. It is a situation that encourages conformist behavior and diminishes the long-term potential for innovation. This phenomenon is illustrated with an analysis of disaster management in the Netherlands.

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